The Legal Song. Legal history in lyrics

How come things together in a blog posting? In a postscript to my post on Scandinavian legal history I provided a link to the website of the library of the University of California at Los Angeles. Looking a bit further among UCLA webpages I found the website which is the focal point of this post. One of the digital collections at UCLA is more than just another fine collection. The Sheet Music Consortium is a portal for searching sheet music in seventeen American collections and one Australian collection (at the National Library of Australia). When you realize one of these is a collection at the Library of Congress where you can find massive holdings in the field of music, it becomes clear this portal constitutes a gold mine for anyone interested in popular music. Think only of combining historical sheet music with historical sound recordings in the National Jukebox of the Library of Congress, and you can see a very interesting road for both music aficionados and musicologists.

Law in songs

Law in songs is the subject of this post. The Californian sheet music portal is certainly a place to look for this subject. Law is not just a word in many song titles, several songs deal substantially with law. You have to do some clever filtering to get the best results. A lot of songs mention a mother in law, and here you can do without her! When you have tuned your search the efforts are surely rewarded. The Law Must Be Obeyed is a 1916 song composed by Irving Berlin with his own lyrics. “We’re the county sheriffs and the law must be obeyed” is the first line of the chorus in this song. I Like My Bootleg Man is a song from 1929 by W. Hurdle and F. Sacca, not digitized yet, but clearly connected with the American prohibition on alcoholic drinks between 1920 and 1933. It would be interesting to compare it with an anonymous 1930 song entitled Prohibition Is On The Wing, but this song, too, is not yet available online. Policemen are made fun of in Montague Ewing’s The Policeman’s Holiday (not dated). In this dance, indicated “1 or 2-step” on the cover, children sing the only text of this composition, “Steady, boys, here comes a bobby”.

Many subjects could show up here, but I will offer just one gem, at least from a legal historian’s perspective. Robert Estee composed in 1904 When Boni Sold Samuel Louisiana. A Louisiana Purchase Exposition Song. The 1803 purchase appears in this song as the point of comparison for American expansion symbolised by the Panama Canal. The lyrics of Irving Berlin’s Louisiana Purchase deal with another kind of purchase, the tag “won’t you let me sell you New Orleans” being repeated twice… Lawyers are the subject of a number of songs, for instance in I’ll Place It In The Hands of My Attorney by F. Gilbert with lyrics by Geoffrey Russel Jackson (1885). One of the oldest songs found using this portal is a ballad, A Fine New Sang of The Battle Fought On The Shields Railway, using the tune Cappy’s the dog. The digitized version of this song was printed in Newcastle in 1839 and tells a story of early railway travelling, a fight at the railway station and the following trial of the culprits with a surprising verdict.

More online collections with American sheet music exist, and you will not want to read a full list of them. The Library of Congress is in a class of its own, not just in the field of law, but also for music and music history, and I gladly refer you to it. I want to single out one American digital collection, the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Among the digitized cylinders I found a recording from 1917 called The trial of Josiah Brown. Listening to this vaudeville sketch can make you in a new way aware of the imagery, the clichés, the routine attitudes, the clashes between high and low society and much more which not just surround a court of justice, but are part and parcel of it, and thus open to all kind of reactions, including humour, ridicule and satire.

More ballads and songs

Earlier this year I already referred to some databases for historical songs, to be more exactly in a post on the history of piracy. The English Broadside Ballad Archive (University of California at Santa Barbara) is one of the digital gateways to old songs; here four collections can be searched simultaneously. A rather random search yielded already nearly hundred songs about lawyers, including a festive song on Edmond Saunders becoming the Lord Chief Justice of England (A New-years Guift to the TEMPLERS, / On the Eminent Lawyer / Sir Edmond Saunders (…)). Saunders had been a bencher of the Middle Temple and got this high office only months before his death in 1683. The Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads at Oxford does contain the 1839 railway ballad mentioned above (Johnson Ballads 3078). Revolution & Romanticism is the website of a private collection in Edmonton, Alberta, with historical ballads and chapbooks. Among the ballads concerning the law you will find for example A full and particular account of the execution of Mr. John Wait (…) (Bristol, around 1823).

In the Dutch Song Database of the Meertens Instituut, Amsterdam, you can search 140,000 songs ranging from the Middle Ages to modern times. The murder of count Floris V in 1296 was the subject of a famous historielied (history song), Wie wil horen een nieu liet / Hoort toe, ick salt u singen, “Who wants to hear a new song, listen, I wll sing it for you”), first printed in 1591. A whole section of the Nederlandse Liederenbank is devoted to moordliederen, songs about murders. When you search for example for songs about an advocaat, an attorney, you will find enough to meet them in very different situations. This database offers full access to a number of songs, gives the text of some songs, provides even recordings for others, but often only points to the printed edition or editions where a song text appears.

A quick search for German songs leads to the Deutsches Liedarchiv of the Universität Freiburg. This institution has created an online database, the Historisches Liederlexikon in which you can find a number of song texts and often detailed information about different versions, their reception and adaptation in later songs. Immer langsam voran [Always slowly forwards] was originally a song ridiculing the German fight against Napoleon in the years 1813 and 1814. It remained popular, was adapted during the Vormärz period around 1848, and again in the early twentieth century. The website of the Volksliederarchiv, presumably a private website, lacks supplementary information and is less well searchable, but is strong in presenting songs on various themes. The section Balladen und Moritaten brings you to a nice selection of songs.

Texts of songs and short poems from the German classical period around 1800 are found at the website Freiburger Anthologie-Lyrik und Lied, here again with extensive commentaries and various text versions. The famous song about the Lorelei sorceress, Zu Bacharach am Rheine, tells us about a bishop who summoned her to appear in his tribunal and her answers to him. The documentation of this song is a model of its kind. The mixture of a medieval setting, a romantic story, the seeming simplicity and Clemens Brentano’s poetic skills make this song special indeed, but I had rather not see it as a faithful picture of an ecclesiastical judge. Brentano’s ease in creating this scene is impressive, and it carries conviction, even when one would not immediately imagine a conversation between a sorceress and a bishop in an ecclesiastical court.

It is possible to enlarge this posting by bringing more websites to your attention. I would indeed have liked to include some French websites, but I did not readily succeed in finding a database which at least would equal the qualities of those projects presented here. In order to make up a bit for the gaps in this posting I will provide here some links collections which will help you to find more songs online, both in score and in sound recordings:

Because of this week’s torrential rains in my country it is no wonder why California makes today such an alluring impression when summer should bring nice weather! However, rainy days could give you time to look at the websites mentioned in this post. For California I would choose the Online Archive of California for its sheer variety and the Calisphere portal for its efforts to present many aspects of Californian culture and history.

The Legal Song

At the end I own you an explanation about the title of this post, The Legal Song. Somehow I hit upon this title, thinking it is the actual title of a song. “The legal song and dance” is an expression for elaborate legal negotiations. The internet brings you to legal movies, too, and yes, a few of them have a legal song. One of my search hits was really funny. Jim Henson, the creator of The Muppets, made a spin-off called Fraggle Rock in which a judge and all present sing a song at a trial. The title of his legal song? Sing That Law Again! I hope you enjoy this posting as much as the YouTube movie with this legal song. Hopefully this summer gives you some rest from legal dealing and wheeling, and brings you some time for legal history and some of its aspects that link legal culture to culture at large. I promise to reflect here longer on the theme of law and humanities in another post.

A postscript

On the day of the publication of this post, only hours before I published it, Klaus Graf pointed on his Archivalia blog to two digitized medieval manuscripts at UPenn Libraries with a song about the deposition of the archbishop of Cologne who got married in 1583. Penn in Hand: Selected Manuscripts offers a very useful selection of digitized medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, with fair attention to legal matters.

More broadside ballads

Sheer curiosity made me search for more digital collections with broadside ballads. The following selection presents sites with either bibliographies, useful links or even sound recordings of broadside ballads:

The Cardiff links selection is very rich. For no good reason I had overlooked the section for straatliederen, literally “street songs”, the Dutch version of broadside ballads, in the vast Dutch Song Database of the Meertens Instituut, Amsterdam. These songs can be searched using the interface at The Memory of the Netherlands. You can even listen to some of these songs. I have to mention again Klaus Graf and his blog, a treasure trove in the field of digitization, because he provides the link to the open access journal Oral Tradition where you can find much more on the study of ballads and the field of oral history.

It is not realistic to provide here an exhaustive list of digital collections concerning ballads. A substantial collection with newly digitized ballads is presented by Trinity College Dublin in its digital collections. This library thoughtfully adds that these ballads can also be reached online through the Europeana portal.

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